Book Review: Blue Nights by Joan Didion
“Blue nights are the opposite of the dying of the brightness, but they are also its warning.”
Continuing on my Joan Didion run, I picked up Blue Nights at the library a few weeks ago. After reading The Year of Magical Thinking about the year after Joan’s husband John Dunne died, I wanted to know what happened to her daughter, who was in and out of comas and ICUs during the year after her father died. Blue Nights is Didion’s memoir of dealing with her daughter Quintana’s illness and then subsequent death. Quintana died a little over a year and half after John died, leaving Didion grieving for both her husband and her daughter.
Didion begins Blue Nights remembering Quintana’s wedding day only two years before she died. As she remembers that day, Didion recalls sentimental details that Quintana included on her wedding day from her childhood, like having leis instead of bouquets to remind her of her childhood stays in Hawaii. Only a few months after Quintana and Gerry’s wedding, Quintana fell ill and was in a coma for months before eventually dying two short years later. Didion describes Quintana’s childhood and how mature she was compared to other children her age. Possibly it was because she was adopted or it could be because she was an only child with working parents who brought her along on work trips. As she grew up, she seemed to intuitively understand her time would be shorter than most. She always told Didion not to dwell on things if she could help it.
Along with Didion remembering Quintana’s life, Blue Nights also talks about growing older and physically feeble, while your mind is still sharp. A few years after Quintana dies, Didion experiences some health issues and tries to make sense of aging. When Didion falls and ends up in the hospital, she mentally runs through who she should call. The two people who would be her first choices are both dead, and her friends all have their own lives. How horrible it must be for Didion to be alone like she is; I am sure she is coping, but I do not know how you ever recover from losing both your husband and your daughter before you go.
In one chapter, Didion tells the story of Quintana’s adoption. John and Joan had already decided to name their daughter Quintana Roo after a town in Mexico, so when they got a call from a doctor friend saying there was a baby available, they quickly said yes, and then left the hospital a few days later as parents. It was fascinating to read how different the adoption process was in 1966 compared to now. Quintana’s life was marked by her adoption and was forever asking her parents what if questions. What if you hadn’t answered the phone when Dr. Watson called? What would have happened to me? I find these questions so intriguing; I assume that most children who are adopted have thought similar questions and some may have abandonment issues.
I don’t know what it says about me that two of the three Didion books I have read are her memoirs on grief, but I have really enjoyed reading both books. It definitely helped reading The Year of Magical Thinking first. And it was a pleasant surprise to find out they made a play out of the memoir that starred Vanessa Redgrave on Broadway. Which was a bit of a full circle moment, because earlier in Blue Nights, Didion talks about Natasha Richardson, Vanessa Redgrave’s daughter, and how a freak skiing incident killed her. I thoroughly enjoyed Blue Nights even through the tears. Didion is such an incredibly talented writer and has such a lovely way of putting her feelings to paper. I give Blue Nights 4 stars.
I'll continue on my Didion run, but what other iconic American writer should I read next?